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History of Political Economy 32.1 (2000) 163-164

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Book Review

Critical Economic Methodology:
A Personal Odyssey

Critical Economic Methodology: A Personal Odyssey. By Lawrence A. Boland. London and New York: Routledge, 1997, xi; 307 pp. $65.00.

Some readers may be surprised by the tone of this recent collection of Boland's methodological writings. One is told baldly that conferences are about "cronyism" (109), that methodologists are engaged in "Boland bashing" (44), and that refereeing [End Page 163] is "unfair" (285). Despite this tone, Critical Economic Methodology is an important contribution, and I recommend it to anyone interested in economic methodology or the folkways of contemporary economics.

The book contains twenty chapters of varying lengths. Most were previously published, but almost all have been substantially revised. Boland's two most influential papers--the 1979 Journal of Economic Literature paper on Friedman's instrumentalism and the 1981 American Economic Review paper on the futility of criticizing the maximization hypothesis--are reprinted with only minor changes. Several chapters examine the events leading up to, and immediately following, the publication of these two papers. While most chapters focus on meta-methodology, a few apply Boland's approach to economics. The final chapters discuss the "Socratic Popper" and clarify how it differs from the standard falsificationist view.

So what is this Socratic Popper? Isn't Popperian philosophy just a set of falsificationist rules for the proper conduct of scientific inquiry? Well no, not exactly. It seems that there are other ways to read Popper. The reading that has influenced Boland's work is the "Socratic" version of critical rationalism advocated most consistently by his teacher, Joseph Agassi.

The central thesis of the Socratic Popper is that we learn though rational criticism. Attempting to falsify empirical conjectures is just one form that such criticism might take: "There is a . . . view of Popper's theory of science that is not well known in economics. In this alternative view, falsifiability plays a very minor role. . . . Briefly stated, science for Popper is a special case of Socratic dialogue. . . . Rationality is critical debate. . . . I will call this view the Socratic Popper" (263).

While Boland elaborates many virtues of the Socratic Popper, he nevertheless fails to mention its most important advantage: it is far more sensitive to social context than falsificationism. According to falsificationism, science is about obeying strict rules. In contrast, the Socratic Popper recognizes the importance of the deliberative environment. Knowledge is not the application of rules; it emerges from within a particular social context, an environment that allows for maximal criticism. This shifts the focus of knowledge studies away from rules and toward the social context of scientific inquiry. The result is a Popperian position that is much more consistent with recent developments in post-Kuhnian philosophy of science and science studies.

The bottom line is that Boland endorses an interesting and important methodological vision. Critical Economic Methodology presents that vision, compares it to falsificationism, applies it to various aspects of economic theory, and provides a useful (if sometimes overly spirited) narrative that clarifies the troubled relationship between the Socratic Popper and other approaches to economic methodology.

D. Wade Hands
University of Puget Sound



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pp. 163-164
Launched on MUSE
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Archived 2005
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